Have appetite, will travel: The rise of food tourism

More and more travellers are experiencing new places through the local food culture

Caroline Wilson of Taste and Tour NI leads a food tour in Belfast.

Caroline Wilson of Taste and Tour NI leads a food tour in Belfast.


When choosing weekend getaways, city breaks and countryside sojourns, travellers are increasingly seeking “real” experiences to add depth and value to their trip – and food is frequently at the top of holiday wish lists.

Tourist boards and tour operators are taking note and are now marketing towards the culinary traveller. Bolstered by the “live like a local” experience offered by the likes of Airbnb and WithLocals, travellers are uncovering the story of a place more and more by tasting its flavours.

In a Food Travel Monitor report published in 2016, 75 per cent of leisure travellers said they had been motivated to visit a destination because of culinary activity. A similar European-wide, multi-generational study undertaken by Expedia Media Solutions reported that almost half of those surveyed plan travel around food and drink experiences.

As food and travel writers, we’re led by the nose and tastebuds around the world to uncover the flavour of any destination, from chasing custard tarts and Vinho Verde in Lisbon to seeking out Poland’s plumpest pierogi, gin bar hopping in San Sebastián to a gelato pilgrimage along the boot of Italy.

But dining out is not the only way to experience the food of a city or country. From cookery courses and food markets to vineyard visits and farm tours, a combination of tasting and hearing the stories from locals and producers reinforces the culture and identity of a place. Connection is the end goal, linking gourmet travellers to a place’s history, customs and local people.

In Ireland, food-led conferences such as Food on The Edge, touRRoir and Ballymaloe Litfest have all helped to shape the food tourism industry and put Ireland on the map as a cutting-edge leader in the field. Fáilte Ireland has played in a big part in promoting Ireland as a culinary destination and guiding restaurateurs, chefs and producers through their ‘Place on a Plate’ initiative, telling the story of local, seasonal Irish food on every plate and in every glass.

In London, Jennifer Earle has run Chocolate Ecstasy Tours for more than a decade and feels lucky to have ridden the food tourism wave. “The tours were the first regular ‘food tourism’ experience in London in 2005,” she says, “and it was almost exclusively people living fairly close to London booking tours as an experiential gift. Locals are still 50 per cent of my customer base, but the number of tourists joining us has increased.”

She adds: “A tour is something you can enjoy at any age and when it’s combined with a bit of history you feel like you’ve done something ‘cultural’ without the risk of boredom. Taking a food tour is a much more ‘real’ way to get to know cities and the people that populate them.”

Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours: “Tourists just want a slice of real Galway life.”
Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours: “Tourists just want a slice of real Galway life.”

Another entrepreneur who spotted an appetite for food tourism is Sheena Dignam, who runs Galway Food Tours. Leading visitors through the City of Tribes, Dignam shares a selection of the food and drink that makes Galway such a gastronomic destination. “Tourists just want a slice of real Galway life,” she says. “By meeting the producer, shop owner, restaurateur or chef, they get that first-hand human connection that makes tasting produce all the better. A connection to a place is heightened by a connection to its people.”

Locals are now joining Dignam’s food tours of Galway city and beyond, echoing the marked rise in domestic tourism and staycation trend in Ireland. “We love getting locals and they in turn love being a tourist in their own town,” Dignam says. “We’re all guilty of sticking to a routine and going to the same places. I work with over 50 locations in Galway and I get to bring people to places they might have never even heard nor thought of.”

In Belfast, “locals are still predominantly the bulk of our guests on tours, but more and more international tourists are finding us and booking as the first thing they do here,” says Caroline Wilson, owner and operator of Taste and Tour NI, leading walking food tours around Belfast and beyond. Wilson displays an infectious energy and passion for Northern Irish produce daily on her tours of Belfast’s best food and drink offerings and insists “it’s the perfect way to get to know a city, meet locals, taste the best dishes and find all the food and drink hot spots that only a local would know”.

“I can definitely see that tourists are coming here to discover the food and drink we offer, alongside the people and places.”

Technology and social media are fuelling this trend, with online booking systems, websites, digital publications and blogs promoting food tourism and reaching a far wider, international audience than ever before.

Just as Airbnb revolutionised the accommodation sector, marketing ‘like a local’ living, and TripAdvisor transformed the world of word-of-mouth reviews and recommendations from tourists and locals, social media is bolstering food tourism and helping to build big businesses out of it.

Earle says “More and more people are interested in food and sharing that, from eating well at home to wanting to discover new and exciting things to eat and drink when they travel.”

Combining her own personal travel experiences and tour business inspired Earle’s new venture, a self-guided tour of London, pre-booked online. “I realised that there’s a gap for knowing where to go but exploring those places on your own schedule. So I’ve just launched Taste Tripper, a self-guided food tour offering flexibility for tourists to experience locals’ best recommendations for craft food and drink.”

Tourist boards are similarly chasing the culinary traveller and marketing their gastronomy on the world stage. In 2016, both Northern Ireland and Catalonia engaged in ‘Year Of’ marketing campaigns celebrating the rich diversity of food and drink across their areas, whilst the German National Tourist Board is set to launch its ‘Culinary Germany’ campaign in 2018. Highlighting Germany as a delicious destination, naturally the capital Berlin is set to get a generous slice of the action.

“Berlin has so much more to offer than currywurst and kebab,” Christian Tänzler of Visit Berlin explains. “Foodies love Berlin for its creative chefs and restaurants in unusual locations and the Berlin food scene demonstrates exactly what the city is: open-minded, multicultural, creative and surprising.”

Of Visit Berlin’s plans for 2018, Tänzler says: “We are planning to bring a little bit of Berlin to several countries in Europe with our concept ‘Pop Into Berlin’, a week-long pop-up in different international cities with a temporary restaurant featuring modern Berlin food, a Berlin-styled bar, iconic DJs and artists from the city and a boutique with designer Berlin crafts.” Can’t travel to the city? Maybe in the future the city will come to you.

So increasingly, it’s not just your passport you need to pack when travelling, but a voracious appetite, too. Patrick Hanlon & Russell Alford are food and travel writers at gastrogays.com

Tell us your foodie travel tips and win a luxury culinary break 

Harvey’s Point hotel in Donegal
Harvey’s Point hotel in Donegal

To celebrate Food Month, we’re asking readers to suggest their best foodie finds from their travels.

You’ll be in with a chance of winning a two-night stay for two at Harvey’s Point, Lough Eske in Donegal. You’ll stay in a luxurious executive suite with breakfast each morning and dinner on one evening in the 2AA Rosette Restaurant.

So tell us all about that little-known restaurant, or a must-try cocktail or pastry, or a shop for those essential treats to bring home. If you have a photograph you can submit it, too. We’ll share the best with our readers throughout Food Month.

To enter, go to irishtimes.com/life-and-style/travel and fill in the form. Terms and conditions apply

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